Saturday, January 17, 2015

A church for all reasons...and all seasons

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 17, 2002

One day, Matilda and Burt were visiting the country fair, one of the highlights of their lives out in East Cupcake, or East Overshoe, or wherever it was they lived. Soon enough, right after they got there, they came across one of those open cockpit airplane rides, and it had a big sign in front of it: “Rides for Two—Only Ten Dollars!!!”
And Matilda said to Burt, “You know, Burt, I’ve always wanted to take one of them airplane rides. And look, it says ‘Only Ten Dollars!!!’.”
Only ten dollars?” Burt asked. “That’s a lot of money. I don’t think so; ten dollars is ten dollars.”
But Matilda said, “Look here, Burt, I’m 72 years old. I’ve never been up in an airplane in my life, and I might never get another chance.”
To which Burt replied again, “I don’t think so. Ten dollars is ten dollars.”
At this point, the pilot, who had been listening to their conversation, chimed in, “Tell you what, folks. I’ll take the two of you up in the plane for nothing—on one condition: You can’t say anything during the whole flight. If you say as much as a single word—one little peep-- you owe me the ten dollars. Is it a deal?”
That sounded like a pretty good bargain to Matilda and Burt, so they climbed into the plane.
Well, that pilot did everything he could to get them to cry out—to exclaim something—to say anything. He did loop de loops, and spin de sins, and he took the plane into suicide nosedives. But Burt and Matilda didn’t say a single word!
When he’d finally had enough, the defeated pilot brought the plane back to the fairgrounds for a landing. He turned around, and said to Matilda, “Well, I guess you get the plane ride for free. I did everything I could to get you to say something, but I have to admit it: I didn’t hear a single word.”
To which Matilda replied, “Well, I was going to say something when Burt fell out of the plane back there… But then again, ten dollars is ten dollars.”
Ten dollars is ten dollars, and it’s not something to be parted with casually, especially for us old Yankees, who might have more than a little bit of Burt and Matilda in us. Ten bucks is nothing to sneeze at. But we don’t need Alan Greenspan to tell us that ten dollars isn’t what it used to be.
What can ten dollars do for us nowadays, what can it buy? Not as much as it used to, that’s for sure:
If you are in the habit, as many people are, of stopping by your local Dunkin’ Donuts, or Honeydew, or Starbucks, or whatever, every day, for a simple cup of joe—just small cup of coffee—not even a latte, or a Frapachino, or a Dunkaroonie or whatever they call it-- that would cost you, in the course of a year, about $400 dollars.
Add a newspaper every day, and you’re up to about $700—about fifteen dollars a week. So, for Burt and Matilda’s ten dollars, you couldn’t even get a cup of coffee and a newspaper!
Last year, our church raised in pledges approximately $ 33,000 (which is the most we’ve raised in recent years, a little more than we’ve raised for the past several years).
If you take that $ 33,000 and divide it by the number of people actively involved in our church—let’s say (about) 70 adults and (about) 30 children of various ages—about a hundred people altogether-- that comes to an average contribution of $330 each, or about $ 6.35 per week. That might fit into Burt and Matilda’s budget. But it wouldn’t be nearly enough to buy everybody a coffee and newspaper every day. It might not even get everybody the coffee.
Now, I’m not sharing any of these figures to make any of you feel guilty. This is, in oh so many ways, an exceedingly generous church, where people give so freely of their time, talent, and energy. Time, in this day and age, is probably worth more than money (though I probably shouldn’t admit that on Canvass Sunday; but if we all had to pay for so many of the things which so many of you provide on a voluntary basis, you know darn well that our budget would be way, way above the approximately 100,000 or a little more that it will be for next year). I know that some of you give significantly more than that average figure of six-dollars-and-change per person each week.
But I share this figure with you just to illustrate my point that times change… seasons change… the years go by relentlessly, with the regularity of the waves… But I think, in all honesty, that some of our attitudes about church finances, and what it takes to keep a church going, are stuck back in an earlier season of our lives—or stuck in some past season of the imagined life of society.
We’re not in Kansas any more, and we’re not back in a simpler, easier, cheaper age (if it ever existed) when the church could get by on the good old dollar a week in the plate, or on what people felt like donating-- some percentage of what was left over after everything else had been paid for (which is usually, as you know as well as I, not that much).
Seasons change. Churches change. Our reasons for coming to church change.
But what doesn’t change is our need to support our church as generously as we do any of the other important aspects of our lives. What doesn’t change is our need to commit ourselves to our church to the fullness of our ability and our means.
In my opinion, the greatest threat that this church faces at this season of its existence is the lack of depth of commitment of its members. Our financial commitment to our church is a critical aspect of this. We can’t rely on a few blessed war horses to keep on bearing the brunt of the burden and doing the brunt of the work. We can’t rely on the generosity of a few blessed souls to bear the majority of our church’s financial needs.
If we do that, then soon enough we will be in real trouble. Soon enough, those who have done all the work in the past will not be able (or, perhaps, willing) to do it all any longer. Soon enough, the fiscal needs of this church will far outstrip the ability of most generous givers to subsidize them. If we rely upon our present levels of commitment alone, then I am afraid that before too long this church of ours will run out of gas, and we will have to scale down severely our ability to mount the kinds of programs we now do, to provide the kind of full time ministry we now have, to meet as well as we do now the spiritual and religious needs of our own congregation and the wider community.
You might think it’s kind of a stark picture I’m presenting here. But I owe it to all of you to present an honest picture to all of you, as your minister, your pastor, and your friend.
And while I would say that it is an honest picture, I would also reiterate that it is most certainly not a hopeless one. I am convinced, now as much as ever, that we have within our midst what we need to surmount the obstacles this church faces, and continue on into the next wonderful season of its life.
Struggling little churches are nothing new. I’ve never been in a church, either as a minister or as a layperson, which didn’t struggle over the issue of how it was going to balance the next year’s budget.
Sounds sort of like a family, doesn’t it? Like churches, families struggle (very often) over how they’re going to pay all their bills. But in our homes, we don’t have the option of saying, “Well, I don’t know how much I really want to identify with this family, so maybe I’ll let someone else take up the slack this year, and I’ll give a little less…” No—we give whatever it takes of ourselves to our families to thrive, and for the needs of all the members to be met, and for us to set the goals we set for ourselves.
Being part of a church family—what a blessing that truly is, in these tempestuous, troubled, confusing, chaotic times in which we live! Being part of a church family requires that kind of attitude, that kind of commitment, that kind of sacrifice, even. We want our church family to thrive, and so, we give to our fullest ability (and that differs widely among us, I know; the exact amount we’re able to give is something that each have to ponder in our homes and in our hearts).
I’m not into pain, and so I’m not asking you to give until it hurts. But I am asking you to give until you can feel it. Give until it feels good. Give until it helps. I’m asking you to give from the fullness of your being; from your sense of generosity and not of scarcity; to give enough so that you feel as though you’ve given something that is significantly part of you. To give so that the standard of living of this church will not just be stuck on “survive”, but to give so that this church can thrive and grow and expand, and meet some of the potential that it still has locked inside of it somewhere.
This might sound like an arduous task. But I think, honestly, that it’s easier than it might seem.
Let me take out a few figures I shared with you last year to show you what I mean:
If our “median family income”, here in this church, is somewhere around the $56,500 that the government says it is for Norfolk County, and we all pledged at 1% of that, that would yield $ 565 per year (a little over $10 a week), times (say) 50 pledging units, for a total canvass amount of $ 28,250. As I said, we’re actually a tad higher than that: last year’s total was about $33,000.
But now, here’s the interesting part: Look what happens if we all bring our pledging up just a notch or two, so that the average pledge from all of us is (say) 2% of our gross family income. Just 2%. Not tithing. Not 5%. Not even the 3%. Just 2% as a fair share scale for all of us to reach toward:
That would yield an average pledge of $1030; times 50 units; for a grand total of $ 51,500-- or about $17,500 more than we raised last year!
The moral of the story is this: If you bring your family’s pledge up just a notch, and if everybody who can does the same, then we will be able, right now, to secure the financial base of our church, and move from a mindset of scarcity to one of abundance, and move into the future confidently and creatively, and hand down the precious legacy of this wonderful church to the next generation in significantly better financial condition than we received it.
I don’t usually do math, but I did pretty well with the Super Bowl score, so what the heck. That, very directly, is Rev. Jeff’s prescription for our church’s financial health.
Here it is, even more simply put:
   If you’re giving at 1% of your income, bring it up to 2%.
   If you’re giving at 2%, bring it up to 3%.
   If you’re giving at 3%, bring it up to 4%.
   If you’re already pledging at 4% or more (and I know that some of you are), then ponder in your heart how much more of your abundance you can share so that our church’s future may rest secure.
Struggling little churches like ours are nothing new.
Sometime toward the middle of the 19th Century, a woman wrote to the famous editor Horace Greeley, a Universalist by the way, and a man known for his generous support of worthy causes, saying that her church was in a distressing financial predicament. They were running out of money, and didn’t know what to do. (The subtext was, I think, that the woman was probably hoping that Greeley would just cut them a check.) They had tried “fairs, strawberry festivals, oyster suppers, box socials, mock weddings, grab bags, and lawn [sales],” the woman wrote. “Would Mr. Greeley be so good as to suggest some new device to keep the struggling church from disbanding?”
To which Mr. Greeley replied: “Try religion.”
Our religion is our spirituality with flesh and bones and buildings and paper clips and paper and books for the Sunday school and music for the choir and everything else that goes into running a church attached. “It is the place of religion to build castles in the air,” Peter Raible once said. “It is the place of churches to build foundations under them.”
Religion is about living our spiritual values. Committing to a church is about putting our selves—our beings—our families-- where our spiritual values are. Pledging to a church is about putting our dollars where our hearts are. By pledging generously to that in which we believe, we take a tremendous step on our own journeys toward wholeness, and we enter a new season of spiritual maturity. Generosity deepens our souls. Our generous giving to our church deepens our church’s soul and empowers it to grow into all it can become.
If you’re looking for a reason to pledge generously to this church—then try religion. Try the world-changing, soul-shaking, history-making values that this faith of ours—this fragile church of ours—truly represents.
If you’re looking for a reason to give generously, then, by all means, consider all the things this church means to you, all the reasons you and your families come to this church: consider the first-rate religious education it provides for your children; think about our worship experiences, unlike any other you will find in this community; remember those caring and compassionate souls with which you can share the spiritual journey; think about those opportunities for enlightenment and education—chances to stretch your mind—that you can take part in here, in this church, at a fraction of what they would cost you elsewhere; cherish in your hearts this community—this church family—this home for your spirit which is there when you need it, for whatever reason, in all seasons of your life.
And look even deeper. Look toward the deep ideals which this church dares to represent: ideals which rescue spirituality from dogma; which affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all people, not just those whom fortune or society has favored; which dares to stand for something in this hard world; which dares to embrace an ethic as big as the whole world and which seeks to reconnect us with the earth and with one another. These are what we value here, and so much more: honesty, compassion, freedom, responsibility, justice, equity, idealism, interdependence—and yes, generosity—a generosity of spirit, which we all seek to reflect in the lives we lead.
And we believe in life,
And in the strength of love.
And we have found this sacred place, this holy church, where we can be together, and become all that we can become, together.
With God’s grace—and with our own deepening commitment—may this vision become real and true.

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